Rediscovering Photography with the
help of a bike, the Fuji X100T and a girl.
By Robert Lee
Here I am sat in not-so-sunny England, staring at a blank pages document with Wimbledon on in the background hoping to be able to write an account of how, in the past five years I have gone from being a ‘pro’ photographer to giving it all up because the spark had gone, making my way through a few years of depression, back out the other side, then rediscovering what photography is all about and what it is to me.
I have written for this site in the past and have been an on/off reader for about seven years now, and like many of you I do enjoy the gear side of photography. I love to see what manufacturers are going to give us next to help us capture or create the images we see before us or inside our heads.
Recently though we have reached a new chapter in photography, one in which every camera is able to give you brilliant results, high resolution, sharp optics, ease of use, affordable etc etc. Steve covered this brilliantly in his article ‘Buy With Your Heart’ so I won’t go on about it too long. What I will say though is they cannot sell you that spark that makes you want to sit outside all day waiting for a rare bird to come into frame, waking super early to capture an amazing sunrise, the ability to see beauty of the urban landscape and the people within it, how to coax out the expressions of a model so you can tell a story with no words. I lost all this in 2012.
(Just a disclaimer – this next section is very me, me, me. Not something I like to do but I’m sure there are many that will relate)
2012 was the year where if you were to look from the outside in I should have been happy. I was a successful photographer and had been since 2009. I had a business photographing weddings in the south of England with bookings confirmed for the next 12-18 months ahead. I had three freelancers working for me on many occasions because the workload was high enough to demand it and the income was not to be sniffed at! I had the means to buy any gear I wanted and the justification of being a ‘professional’ to own it. On the inside I was fed up. Fed up of being a spectator on other people’s lives, fed up of constantly being connected to social media, emails and meetings. Something had to give and unfortunately it was me that did eventually give. Come 2013 I was burnt out, had more gear and stuff than I knew what to do with and fell into depression. I made a conscious decision during this time to wrap things up but I had a commitments to fulfilling my obligations with the clients that had trusted me to be their photographer for the day. It was not the finest work I ever produced but I got through the following months by putting on a brave face. It was obvious to everyone my passion had gone. Once these commitments had passed and I no longer needed to put that face on I sold nearly everything I owned. The only survivor really was my guitar (a beautiful Paul Reed Smith I saved every penny I earned when I was 18-19 years old). I didn’t touch a camera for three years, deleted all social media and went travelling until around Europe in the hope I could find some sort of answer as to why I wasn’t happy with everything modern life says will make us happy.
The first part of answer came to me on a night train from Venice to Vienna at 5am (although I didn’t realise the significance at the time). I woke in early in the morning for an unknown reason and looked out the tiny window of the carriage. I saw the mountains, the sunrise and the world going by at an alarming rate. I captured it on my iPhone and I felt it, the tiny little glimmer of the spark. I realised how much I was missing speeding along in this train and wanted to slow down, see it and experience it. I knew from that moment on I needed to slow down while travelling and probably in many other parts of my life. I strived from this point to slow down, take it in and experience. It’s one thing to say ‘I’ve seen that’ and another to feel you experienced it.
“Somewhere between Venice and Vienna”*
Another casualty during this turbulent time was my relationship. It’s easy to look back and see that it was the right thing to happen, but at the time I was crushed. My life had fallen apart and I hadn’t the motivation to even begin thinking about how to put it back together.
The second part of the answer came six months later. I had managed to get myself a job working for a DIY store, made some friends and built up enough steam to get out on a bike ride. From a young age I loved riding but inside I always wanted to ride, wild camp for a night and ride again the next day. Inadvertently I had desired cycle touring from a very early age. The freedom was addictive and the places magical. I was hooked, I lost weight, I got fit, I felt good and I was back to feeling the best I had felt since my early twenties. The bike provided the means to go around the world but it was also slow enough to see it.
After nearly two years of mini tours, exploring and adventures that image from the night train was still lodged in my mind and that feeling I hadn’t felt in such a long time was still present. It told a story. It lit something that grew bigger and bigger until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I wanted to tell stories with photography again!
I had booked to go to Iceland for the second time with a friend from work and had no intention of taking a camera with me until the week before I left. I happened to be in a John Lewis store when I was playing the part of an advisor helping find essential warm clothing before we left. I happened to stroll into the shiny technology section and had to have a little browse of the cameras.
I picked up the Sony RX100mkIII. Great camera, very sophisticated and modern. No soul.
I picked up a Olympus Pen. Didn’t feel right but beautiful all the same.
I picked up a Canon 5D mkIII. Too familiar, reminded me when, for me, it was about the gear and not the photos.
Finally I picked up the X100T. I had owned the original for a few months about three years previous and even shot some weddings with it. I wrote about it for this very site!
That was it, that was what I needed. I felt at home, I felt comfortable and was happy with it in my hands. This was a huge milestone for me because just the thought of owning a serious camera in the recent past made me feel physically sick. The camera fit my ethos as near to perfect as can be. After shedding all my stuff I maintained a certain level of minimal. I don’t live in a white room with nothing in it and declaring everyone else as hoarders, but I only own things that bring value to me life. If it does not fulfil this simple role it simply isn’t purchased. This unintentional lifestyle choice has made it’s way into some of my more recent photos.
“Minimalism sometimes shows itself in my photos”*
Because of this I didn’t buy right away but trudged on through the throngs of people of Southampton that were buying huge amounts of stuff.
I thought about it over the next few days. Mulling it over one morning I thought I’d check eBay to see if there was a deal to be had and an X100T to rehome. There it was! 10 miles from home, 3 hours left and a buy it now of £675 with a case and three batteries. I emailed the guy and offered £600 and would pay cash on collection. He initially said no but when the auction ended he promptly got back to me saying he had reconsidered. I went there right away and upon departing he said ‘this was meant to be’ he explained that he had been offered £650 numerous times but turned them all down and here I was walking away with it for £600.
The trip to Iceland came and camera with me. I chose to experience Iceland this time round and not just see it through a viewfinder (something I wish people at music concert would do). As a result I came back with only a handful of images but ones that I felt were great, ones that told stories and I still experienced it all.
“Sólheimasandur crash site. I walked down as early as possible in order to have this amazing scene to myself”*
“The sea on this part of the coast is extremely unpredictable, just a week before I took this a family lost their lives here…”*
“Met this couple in my hostel room on the south coast. they asked for me to show them the plane crash site, when we walking back we were treated to a display of the northern light. The camera was on the floor with a stone under the lens to get the angle right”*
“Iceland sometimes feels as if you are on another planet”*
Over the past 18 months my little X100T comes with me everywhere. I take it on all my bike ride adventures. On these I tend to come across all sorts of places of amazing natural beauty, decaying ruins and site of historical interest. Between my ability to ride long distance, wild camping and this little camera I have rediscovered my love for History, Art, Travel and Nature. I have gone from trying to get back on my feet and working in a the dead ended DIY store (although I will always speak highly of that place because of the great friends I made there) to rekindling my love of music and working in one of the largest music stores on the south coast with a thriving community of players and music lovers.
It isn’t as straight forward story as beginning – middle – end. I struggle taking the wall down and getting my work out there, letting my guard down and sharing. This is my first foray into the yet unknown world of telling stories and using photography as a vehicle to do so. So often do we all get caught up thinking photography is the end game, it isn’t. Being able to take a good photo isn’t anything unless people connect with it.
In a world where followers are the commodity, a photograph has an average shelf life of four hours on social media rarely to be seen again. A world where everyone you meet is a photographer in some way, shape or form. A world where peoples attention span has shrunk to seconds not minutes, it’s hard to be relevant. As I mentioned this is my first foray into the world beyond my wall, a step into the world of writing and sharing. I am not on social media because of many reasons that are not relevant to this article bar one. When I was on there and I did share photos from my adventures in India, Iceland, cycle tours etc I realised I gave people the ability to step into my travels on a micro level, anonymously throughout the time I was gone. When I came back from India and was asked about what my travels were like, I would begin telling them a story, nine times out of ten the answer while I was talking was “oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook” before I had even finished.
India is a truly amazing place to visit. I really went out of my way to capture the feeling of the place. It’s so easy to go to and come back with only holiday snapshots of beautiful beaches, monkeys and the classic national geographic style old person staring into the lens. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone as a photographer and felt I succeeded in capturing some great candid moments of the Panjim fish market. It was very alien for me to using my camera in this way and I have a new found respect for all you street photographers out there. Of course a few holiday snapshots made it in there, I’m only human!
Upon arriving home I printed some 30 photos of my trip and compiled them in a photo book purely for my own enjoyment. I had some family over shortly after this and was asked about India, I went to get my photo book and for the next 20 minutes I relayed stories with details, sharing the highs and lows, all the while the photos were there to add an element of context for people to understand. This was a big deal to me and it is what I have been looking for and what has lead to this article.
“India was beautiful and enlightening not in the usual sense. it made me realise what photography needs to be again”*
I intend to carry on this route and start a blog around preserving curiosity, lifestyle and adventure. Using my ability to take a half decent photo as a means to add context to my writing. Everyone and their grandma has a blog but writing this article with Steve’s blessing has brought me much enjoyment.
I wish in a sense I had something to direct all of you that have made it this far into my ramblings, but like most thing in my life these days it takes time. I procrastinate, think of every angle, over analyse, procrastinate a little more and eventually something might come out that makes sense and of mild interest. Maybe it should be called ‘at a snails pace’?
In the mean time all I have to give is this: https://www.flickr.com/people/148338705@N05/
A link to the my last remaining social link online. I hope to write more for this site and maybe once the mythical blog starts I will be able to share it here.
The title of this article is ‘Rediscovering photography with the help of a bike, the X100T and a girl’. I have covered the camera, the bike and now onto the girl. I have been lucky enough to meet someone who has listened at length to my ramblings, moans and groans, thoughts about the specific nonsense but mostly my aimless cerebral musings. She has been tirelessly encouraging me to do this, helping me direct my attention. So here it is, my first steps into the world of making photography, travel and life make sense.
*insert: SH – 15 – with caption “Exploring forbidden places”*
*insert: SH – 16 – with caption “Enjoying the Solstice while having a picnic on a hill watching the longest sunset”*
*insert: SH – 17 – with caption “Another human enjoying the last light”*
Great article! Glad to see that you made it through.
loved it best photography story/article ive read in a while, great photos as well the x100t is a great companion for work like this 😉
Rob this was a truly inspiring, absorbing and interesting read. Well done for having the courage to speak out loud about what still remains a taboo subject for many, especially men. Your photographs are wonderful and are the essence of your very sensible ‘less is more’ approach. I enjoyed it immensely and have followed you on Flickr. Like you I have a bikepacking/touring wanderlust, which I hope to get off the ground soon. I look forward very much to hearing more from you.
Very moving story…Thank you for sharing it. And please do push forward with your blog ideas…sounds like a breath of fresh air amidst all the GAS and tech madness. Thanks also to Steve Huff for providing the platform to connect the ruminations and aspirations of persons like yourself with those of us also grappling, looking for that means to better connect and understand. Craig
Great article. Inspiring. Every day I am going to work I am taking the x100t with me taking picture in the railway station. I may end up with the book and stories like you did. It is not easy as photographer to write but your text is trully nice to read.
Thanks Robert for this touching and eloquent story. Not so easy for us guys to talk about our inner experience, but I found it compelling. I look forward to the blog!
I just wanted to thanks to everyone for their lovely comments. I have had an astonishing response in only 24 hours since being published!
I thoroughly enjoy writing, sharing and finally seeing how people can relate to the subjects covered here. This tentative first step into the uncharted world of writing certainly has had the most positive affect upon me. I will be sharing a few more articles in the coming months but in the mean time I need to get the ball rolling for a blog of sorts.
Thank you all once again.
super article very much appreciated ,love your photographs you can feel them .
A moving article. All the very best, Iain d. Nicholl
Love the archetypal theme – metaphorical death followed by resurrection – an encounter, journey from which art flows. Thanks for your story and your images.
One of the best articles I have ever seen on Steve’s site. Thanks a lot for this, Robert. It made me stop for a while and think about what I have done and what I would do from now on. It was very brave of you to take the risk, it seems now you get the price.
Congratulation and hope the best comes to you.
A worthy article, well written and some photos.
Many thanks to Steve and All for publishing!
I was a Pro, now retired.
Photography has always been my passion.
Thee pro work when weddings, a wonderful way to meet folks and be a part of their important moments!
I never booked more than I could handle, never did assignments,
with difficult clients!
Digital has created a need for “images ready two days ago” which is beyond stupid.
Also an idea it should cost nothing!
I still use my old gear!
My Leica M3 now 50 years in service.
Congrats to sharing your deepest thoughts.
I think it is very courageous of you to write a well thought out “me” article. Others can recognise themselves, or something of themselves, in it and take new steps. On the camera front, I tried to like the Fuji X100S, but ended up feeling it was too bulky for what it did, and I’m much happier with my second-hand Leica X1. As to pictures, I really like your minimalist ones and hope you may show us some more sometime.
Truly inspiring article. For me it almost felt like I was reading about myself, having experienced much of what is written here. Loved it!
You’ve done something that a lot of people never have – figured out what you really want out of life.
I’m a little envious.
What a great response. Love it.
Nice article better than flat pictures.
I am glad that you were able to get back into a better state of being. Thanks for writing this photo essay.
Great pause for thought article…. thanks.
Lovely, and real article, Robert, and (among other things) explains why I hardly ever use FB!
May I make a suggestion: in your ordinary daily life, try to keep part of your attention on sensations in the body (for me it’s the tummy area); the reason is, if you can, you will be more present in the constantly unfolding ‘now’, which is all we have, really. I have written extensively on this elsewhere (you can google me if you want), but modern life actively works against feeling what’s happening in the body via the 10,000 distractions, some of which you wrote about eloquently.
Lovely images, too.
I couldn’t stop reading this, it was like standing on a cliff edge looking out at a sunset. Honest, inspiring, and humbling. Well done on coming this far and being brave enough to step beyond your Wall. Keep going, but at *your* pace. Super, super photos too. Hope others enjoy this, it deserves to be read.
A well-written article – may you “go forth and prosper”.
Curiously, it was a visit to John Lewis that changed my approach to cameras! I had become increasingly troubled by the size and weight of my Nikon gear and, with a trip to Borneo coming up, wanted something tough and portable, with sufficient image quality to do justice to the trip. In my case, my ‘answer’ was an Olympus E-M5. Until that shopping trip, I had not realised just how good electronic viewfinders had become and I have no wish to return to a mirror-type finder again. The advantage of seeing over- or under-exposure displayed in the finder, plus the ability to magnify the image for manual focus, are enormous advantages in my opinion. After that trip, I changed to an E-M1, which I took to New Zealand; a place I can recommend as a great follow-up to Iceland, if you like volcanic scenery!
“The advantage of seeing over- or under-exposure displayed in the finder”
The orange and blue over and under exposure blinkies are the best feature on Olympus cameras!
Well thats what photography is all about – story, feelings and a spark to change ones life. Very, very strong article Robert!
Very inspiring and I connect on SO many points with you. You brought CHANGE into your life by taking huge risks, I can’t for the life of me imagine taking that step, but somehow I hope I will though, one day.
Thank you for your writing and stories.
Greetings from Belgium,
I can’t say better than Dimitri. Thank you Rob for sharing your story, with your open heart.
Agree. Very inspiring!!
One of the best personal articles I’ve read in here. Wide open and brutally honest. Without knowing you I feel the need to congratulate you for your achievement, humanity and inspiration. Good on you mate!